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August 22, 2017

LETHAL LADIES STEP OUT AND STEP UP

“Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine.” Elvis Presley

If there are antidotes to Charlottesville, one may be “Step,” the new documentary from Amanda Lipitz that won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Inspirational Filmmaking at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and the Audience Award for Best Feature at the 2017 AFI Docs festival. The film tells the remarkable story of the step team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW). The school opened its doors to sixth graders in 2009. In the spring of 2016, its inaugural class was preparing to graduate.


 “Step” follows three young women as they train on the step team, known as the Lethal Ladies, with the goal of winning an extramural competition, and as they pursue their academic studies with the goal of securing college acceptance. The former objective is led by dedicated coaches, the latter by the stalwart support of the Upper School Principal and the commitment of one of the school’s counselors, Paula Dofat.

“Step” focuses on Blessin Giraldo, whose mother suffers almost crippling depression; Cori Grainger, the class valedictorian whose mother has recently remarried; and Tayla Solomon, who struggles with her grades even as her demanding corrections officer mother acts not only as her daughter’s booster, but the entire step teams’.  All of the girls’ parents appear to be genuinely loving, but in the face of students whose academic struggles are exacerbated by precarious economic circumstances, the complexities of the college applications process, and the seemingly insurmountable challenge of financial aid, it is the school’s principal, coaches and counselors who emerge as the heroes of the story.

Their indefatigable efforts on the girls’ behalf can seem herculean at times. They refuse excuses and self-pity yet show unlimited depths of compassion and tough love to see their charges through to BLSYW’s mission: that each and every graduate will win college admission, a goal this inaugural BLSYW graduating class has attained. A commencement speaker reminds them that this achievement is not shared by most schools in the United States.

Blessin, despite being the step team’s original organizer, is the most challenged by the demands of discipline, both on the team and in the classroom. Ms. Dofat, speaking to admissions representatives from a bridge school program on Blessin’s behalf, becomes visibly emotional and apologizes. “I’m sorry,” she says wiping away tears. “This is so unprofessional.” One can’t blame her – so much of her professional life and emotional being are wrapped up in the lives and potential of the girls.

“Step” could be faulted for coming off as a feel-good documentary, but there is always an open spot in my heart for documentaries and based-on-a-true-story accounts about the power of education and the arts to shape young people for the good. Indeed, as a life-long educator, it has been my experience that when we raise the bar and demand excellence, not all but most young people rise to the challenge. In “The Great Debaters” (2007) Denzel Washington resurrected the story of Melvin B. Tolson who led the debate team of the historically black Wiley College to victory in the 1930s. Katie Dellamoggiore’s 2012 “Brooklyn Castle” trained its lens on Intermediate School 318, an inner-city public school in Brooklyn, New York, where an after-school chess program produced the top junior high school chess team in the country and the first middle school team to win the United States Chess Federation's national high school championship.

Two 2015 films focused on schools with predominantly Latino students. For champions of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) model that is being so forcefully advanced these days, Sean McNamara’s uplifting “Spare Parts” is a dramatic film based on Oscar Vasquez, the Carl Hayden High School teacher who steered the engineering club in Phoenix, Arizona, to win first place over M.I.T. in the 2004 Marine Advanced Technology Education Center remotely operated vehicle competition. For champions of sport, Niki Caro’s “McFarland, USA” is also a dramatic film based on McFarland High School Coach Jim White and the Latino cross country team he created from scratch and trained to win the 1987 California state championship.

My favorites are documentaries that focus on the arts, like “Step” and Amy Sewell’s 2005 “Mad Hot Ballroom” about a ballroom dance program in the New York City public school system for fifth graders in the Tribeca, Bensonhurst and Washington Heights neighborhoods that culminates in a city-wide competition.

The Baltimore Leadership School was established in partnership with Baltimore City Public Schools, and all of these examples demonstrate the equalizing – and transformative – effects public education can have when its possibilities are embraced by bold teachers and students committed to something larger than themselves. As we face the demolition of public education in the United States, films like these are powerful reminders of what it is we are in the process of giving up.

“Step”
In select theaters

On DVD and Blu-Ray December 2017

August 9, 2017

A GHOST STORY: A MEDITATION ON TIME, REMEMBRANCE AND LOSS

What is time but loss? Loss of youth, of companionship. The process of becoming and of declining. David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story” is about time and loss and opens with an epigram, the first line of Virginia Woolf’s story “A Haunted House”: “Whatever hour you woke up there was another door shutting.” Woolf’s story might better be described as a prose poem. At 1,949 words, it does not tell a story as much as sketch an atmosphere, and you – the reader, the necessary reader of the tale – are set within the narrative from that first sentence. Then, “From room to room they went…a ghostly couple.”

“Here we left it,” she said. And he added, “Oh, but here too!” “It’s upstairs,” she murmured. “And in the garden,” he whispered “Quietly,” they said, “or we shall wake them.”

But it wasn’t that you woke us. Oh, no. “They’re looking for it; they’re drawing the curtain,” one might say, and so read on a page or two. “Now they’ve found it,” one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself …. “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?”

Narrator and reader blur, and “us” (“But it wasn’t that you woke us.”), the narrator and her husband we are to assume, cohabit with the ghostly couple in their house, ghosts who “seek their joy,” “the Treasure” buried in the room – a treasure, we quickly realize, that is not any material thing but the memory and the love they made together in the house “hundreds of years ago.”

Casey Affleck as C. Photo Credit: Bret Curry. Courtesy of A24
Like “A Haunted House,” “A Ghost Story” is and is not a ghost story and like Woolf's tale, is ultimately a love story. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play M and C, a couple living in a house somewhere. He wants to stay because he feels a sense of the history they have together there. She wants to move, and his unwillingness to discuss their future weighs on their relationship. Then he dies in an auto accident and is on a table in a morgue. The camera frames the viewing room and his body under the sheet, until, after she sees him for the final time and departs, he rises slowly from the table. The camera sits, not for seconds but for minutes.

Lowery renders the ghost, not as ectoplasm or vortex or translucent dismembered head, but reduced to a child’s Halloween costume – a mere sheet with cutouts for the eyes. The sheeted ghost is fitting for a deceptively simple plot: A man dies and his ghost has nowhere to go but home. In fact, the austerity of Lowery’s cinematic effects contributes, like Woolf’s elusive syntax and carefully measured vocabulary, to a narrative arc that moves from lyrical to symphonic in a mere 92 minutes. Lowery employs ghost story tropes – tracking shots down empty hallways; a creaking door; buzzing, flickering lights; an unexpected crash or two – but nothing that might cause fright.

The cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo has an almost monochromatic feel in the interior shots, but when the story ventures out of doors, the landscapes are rich and vast. Lowery asked that Daniel Hart’s haunting original score draw inspiration from Woolf’s story, and the concluding piece “Safe, Safe, Safe” echoes the sibilance and the comfort that the line imparts to Woolf’s tale. Again and again, the score incorporates the Picardy third – raising the third of an expected minor triad by a semitone to create a major triad resolution. This produces an effect of joyousness when our expectation is melancholy. Not surprisingly, then, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” will figure into the thematic concerns of the film, as well.

“A Ghost Story” is structured in juxtapositions of montage sequences and static shots. In the era of the fast-cut, Lowery is not afraid for the camera to do nothing but record. An establishing medium long shot becomes the static point of view for an entire scene. Not only does this challenge our conventional contemporary movie-going experience, the approach imposes the experience of time on us. For many, movies are a means of escape, and escapism is to be distracted from the experience of time. That terrible, almost tragic, expression about killing time expresses a desire to kill something so dearly precious and limited to each of us. Lowery seeks, instead, to intensify the experience of time, and then, by contrast, move us through a series of montages that communicate the passage of days, then years, then centuries.

It is impossible not to see in Lowery’s atmospheric visual style and melancholic lyricism an unmistakable homage to Terrence Malick. Some critics argued this made his 2013 feature debut “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” which he also wrote and directed and which also stars Mara and Affleck, merely derivative and uninspired, but there was something brewing in it that augered more. In “A Ghost Story,” Lowery has rendered a transporting meditation on time and human experience, and though Malik’s influence is evident, Lowery explores similar thematic elements with an elegant economy of emotion and duration in stark contrast to Malik’s excesses witnessed in all their grandeur in the 2011, intensely autobiographical “Tree of Life.”

Beginning with Malick in the 1970s, a certain subset of directors emerged from Texas – including Julian Schnabel and Richard Linklater – a subset that Lowery with “A Ghost Story” may be destined to join. Malick was born in Illinois in 1943 but attended St. Stephen’s Episcopal boarding school in Austin, Texas, and most of his films exude a sense isolation experienced in the soft light of the Texas Plains. Brooklyn-born (1951) transplant to Brownsville, Texas, the New York-based painter Julian Schnabel’s 2007 “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is a profound meditation on the capacity of loss to heighten experience and on the mind’s ability to make time non-linear. His new cinematic project “At Eternity’s Gate,” about Vincent Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) and his time in Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, Schnabel describes as “…a film about painting and a painter, and their relationship to infinity.”

Richard Linklater was born in Houston, Texas, in 1960, and the Linklater films that interest me most are those that take on issues of time and our place in it: the animated “Waking Life” (2001), which questions the nature of reality, consciousness, free will and existence itself; the “Before” trilogy filmed over the course of 18 years – “Before Sunrise” (1995), “Before Sunset” (2004), and “Before Midnight” (2013); and the logical – though radical – extension of the trilogy concept, 2014’s “Boyhood” filmed over the course  of 11 years. This approach – the examination of time through real time – is Linklater’s signature method, and one wonders where it might take him next.

The 36-year-old Lowery hails from Texas, too. Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the family moved to Irving, Texas when Lowery was seven. Whether as an effect of the landscape of the southernmost region of the Great Plains, the proximity to the Atlantic Gulf or the sheer size of the state, Malick, Schnabel, Linklater – and now Lowery – share an interest in our experience of time – the fact that we are trapped in it while possessed of the inventiveness, if not to transcend it, at least to reimagine it. Taking very different approaches, each director contemplates the existential experience of time and its companion, loss.

Eternity is both tragic and majestically mysterious. Not long after our ghost has returned to his house, he goes to a window that looks out onto the window of the house next door where he sees a similarly sheeted ghost inside. The two ghosts exchange wordless hellos, understanding each other telepathically. The neighbor ghost explains that she’s waiting for someone. Our ghost asks, “Who?” “I don’t remember,” she replies.

Casey Affleck as C. Photo Credit: Bret Curry. Courtesy of A24
In the conclusion to his review of “A Ghost Story” for the New Yorker, Anthony Lane describes the point after the two now empty, decrepit houses are bulldozed as “the saddest detail of all”: The two ghosts stand amidst their respective rubble, and the neighbor ghost says (whom I refer to above as “she”), “‘I don’t think they’re coming.’ At this precise instant, he folds—just crumples and drops, leaving nothing but a wrinkled sheet on the ground. The waiting was all he had. I must have watched special effects worth hundreds of millions of dollars this year, but nothing has rent the heart as much as this plain low-budget collapse, and it makes you wonder: Was that a soul in Purgatory, and is he now at peace? Or do the dead themselves pass on, living here until their hopeless cause expires, and dying thus around us every day?”

I agree with Lane about the intensity of this moment sans any CGI ostentation, but I did not find it altogether sad. Rather, I read this scene as one of hope. Neither that some greater force condemns us to a Purgatory from which we are released after a designated time nor that we die a second literal kind of death. Might there be hope in choice, in our own agency to give ourselves up to a cycle that is universal and eternal?

In an early scene, M explains to C that, as she has moved from house to house through life, she leaves a tiny note hidden in each – something it is in our human nature to do – leave a piece of ourselves behind, something that says “I was here.” This theme, the desire to leave our mark, circles through “A Ghost Story,” and in that regard, the film is also a story about art – and what is art but an expression of love. Perhaps it is only great artists who leave a mark with any meaningful impact, but we all make some gesture, even if it’s just a tiny slip of paper that carries our handwriting pushed into a crack in the woodwork by which we hope to be remembered. Yet in time, even memory will be lost. We will no longer remember those we’ve loved and lost. But time will go inexorably on – in its grandeur and its indifference.

“A Ghost Story”
In select theaters.

DVD, Blu-ray, Netflix and Redbox release date October 3, 2017.

MAUDIE: A FOLK PAINTER INSPIRES A POIGNANT LOVE STORY

Though there are many good biopics and films based-on-a-true-story (and many bad ones), I have long maintained that it is almost impossible to make a great one. Some have transcended. Alan Pakula’s  1976 “All the President’s Men,” David Lynch’s 1980 “Elephant Man,” Mike Nichols’s 1983 “Silkwood,” Milos Foreman’s 1984 “Amadeus,” Jim Sheridan’s 1989 “My Left Foot,” Martin Scorsese’s 1990 “GoodFellas,” Roman Polanski’s 2002 “The Pianist,” Terry George’s 2004 “Hotel Rwanda,” Sean Penn’s 2007 “Into the Wild,” Julian Schnabel's 2007 "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," Danny Boyle’s 2010 “127 Hours” come to mind. Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” which opened last week, is another. Considering the glut of based-on-a-true-story films these days, however, the chance that one will stand out in the crowd is rare.

The problem is one of artistic license, which writers (take Shakespeare’s history plays, examples par excellence) and filmmakers used to have until 1989, the year Oliver Stone was slammed for “Born on the Fourth of July.” The film initially met with a warm critical reception, but Diana West’s 1990 article for The Washington Times, “Does ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ Lie?,” was typical of the ensuing onslaught. Based on the autobiography by Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic, who co-wrote the screenplay with Stone, “Born on the Fourth of July” encountered a barrage of criticism for everything from collapsing multiple characters into one or inventing characters altogether to outright falsifying the record. More recently, Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” (2014) faced similar reproofs. “Selma” confronted a further challenge in that, since it was not based on autobiography, the personal story had to be conjectured while the overarching historical narrative was expected to be accurate.

Since 1990, film makers have deployed variously worded disclaimers to avoid a torrent of accusations of inaccuracy. Closing credits end with statements along the lines of: "This story is based on actual events. Some incidents, characters and timelines have been altered for dramatic purposes. Certain characters may be composites or fictitious."

Sally Hawkins as Maud Lewis in "Maudie"
Of the protagonists in the films singled out above, none is a personality with whom we share an intimate, albeit public, familiarity. The better we know the public figure, the more iconic the personality, the more artistic license becomes proportionally constrained. Franklin Schaffer’s 1970 “Patton,” Michael Apted’s 1980 “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (Loretta Lynn), Richard Attenborough’s 1982 “Gandhi,” Julie Taymor’s 2002 “Frida” (Frida Kahlo), Taylor Hackford’s 2004 “Ray” (Ray Charles), Bennett Miller’s 2004 “Capote,” James Mangold’s 2005 “Walk the Line (Johnny Cash), Olivier Dahan’s 2007 “La Vie en Rose” (Edith Piaf), Gus Van Sant’s 2008 “Milk” (Harvey Milk), Steven Spielberg’s 2012 “Lincoln,” James Marsh’s “The Theory of Everything” (Stephen Hawking), Danny Boyle’s 2015 “Steve Jobs” – superior films all and each received – deserved – critical acclaim. One wonders, however, to what degree one’s own and the critics’ enthusiasms are based primarily on the degree to which the starring performers pass as the actual historic personage. Honestly, have you ever seen a satisfactory portrayal of JFK? (Todd Haynes’s 2007 “I’m Not There,” in which Bob Dylan is portrayed by a myriad of actors and actresses, is a notable – and admirably creative – exception to this rule.)

All that by way of introduction to Aisling Walsh’s film “Maudie.” The Irish director is best known in Britain for her BAFTA TV Award-nominated work on the two-part miniseries adaptation of Sarah Waters’s Man Booker Prize-nominated novel “Fingersmith” (available on Netflix DVD), also starring Sally Hawkins.

Though based-on-a-true-story, “Maudie” follows the largely imagined life of Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis. The bare bones of Maud’s story are just that – bare. Born in 1903 to John and Agnes Dowley in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Maud was diagnosed early on with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Her mother taught her to draw Christmas cards to sell. John died in 1935, Agnes in 1937. When her brother sold the family house, Maud was sent to live with her aunt in nearby Digby. There she met Everett Lewis, an itinerant fishmonger whom she married shortly thereafter in 1938. He bought Maud her first artist’s brushes and paint. They reportedly shared a devoted relationship, living in Everett’s nine by ten and a half foot house in Marshalltown, from which Maud sold paintings that gained notoriety in the 1960s. She died in 1970; Everett lived until 1979.

Sherry White wrote the screenplay for "Maudie," and in an interview for the Halifax Chronicle Herald (February 26, 2015) says she “became frustrated when [Maud’s] story seemed like a biopic.” White explains that “[I]t was feeling like a movie of the week. Eventually, I focused on the love story…. …. I wanted to believe it was a love story and they were two outsiders who found each other.” Walsh and White benefited from a dearth of biographical information, detail that might otherwise shackle their narrative. They were free to construct a story for Maud and Everett to inhabit as characters, and they took full advantage of dramatic license to create a compelling narrative with a rich backstory for Maud that informs the middle-aged character we meet onscreen. White wanted Maud to be a “character who is determined to have a life of her own, determined to find happiness despite the fact life is challenging for her and beats her down. She’s infectious in how she sees [the positive in] the world….”

Sally Hawkins plays Maud, Ethan Hawke plays Everett and, as the film dictates, they should be understood as characters – not as literal incarnations of actual people. Much of the power of Hawkins’s performance derives from the fact that she refuses to play Maud as a naïf. Maud is quiet yet headstrong, demurring yet shrewd. She has had the misfortune to grow up with a physical infirmity that others have misattributed as intellectually deficiency. The screenplay depicts Everett as an illiterate loner, and Hawke rises to the challenge of maintaining a coarse, churlish exterior while revealing a man capable – albeit cautiously and despite an occasional sadistic outburst – of devotion and genuine affection.

Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins as Everett and Maud Lewis in "Maudie"
Ever the keen observer, when it becomes apparent to her that Everett does not always keep track of his fish deliveries, Maud offers a system for keeping track without suggesting any failing on Everett’s part. In response to Everett’s reluctance to marry (an attitude apparently not shared by the real-life Everett), Maud signs her paintings “Maud Lewis” well before they tie the knot. She persists, and in his own way, he does, too.

White says, “You don’t normally see love stories about characters who are not the typical beautiful people.” This is so true, especially of American cinema, and one of the reasons foreign films are often so refreshing, absent as they sometimes are of overly pretty people. It took an Irish director, a Canadian writer, and an English actress to shape in “Maudie,” not an eccentric caricature, but an indelible portrait of endurance and generosity of spirit.

In selected theaters.
Home Entertainment Unofficial Release Dates:
Digital/On Demand (VOD) September 2017

DVD/Blu-Ray October 2017

April 21, 2017

“LAND OF MINE”: THE ALLIES' REVENGE

“All wars are waged against children.” Eglantyne Jebb, British social reformer and author of “Declaration of the Rights of the Child” (1876-1928)

Two of the finest World War II films ever made are Austrian filmmaker Bernhard Wicki’s “The Bridge” (“Die Brücke”) and Soviet Russian filmmaker Elem Klimov’s 1985 “Come and See.” Wicki’s film, based on Gregor Dorfmeister’s 1958 novel of the same name and based on actual events, was released in 1959, a mere 15 years after World War II ended, when the experiences of war would have been fresh in the German memory.

“The Bridge” tells the story of an incident in the closing days of the war. Seven schoolboys are recruited into a local army unit, but after only one day in the barracks, the commanding officers receive news that the Americans are approaching, and the garrison is called out. Because the boys’ teacher has beseeched the Kompaniechef to keep the boys out of action, he arranges for them to be positioned at the local bridge, ostensibly to defend it, but under the command of a veteran Unteroffizier, the strategically unimportant bridge is to be blown up to spare the village the Allied advance.
Bernhard Wicki's 1959 "The Bridge"
Just as the boys settle in, the Unteroffizier leaves to give the demolition squad its orders. When a Feldgendarmerie patrol mistakes him for a deserter, he panics and attempts to escape. They shoot, leaving the boys on the bridge incommunicado, and the stage set for tragedy. With no order to retreat, the boys stalwartly guard the bridge and uphold the military code: “A soldier who defends just one square meter of ground defends Germany.”

Shot in black and white by Gerd von Bonin and brilliantly edited by Carl Otto Bartning, the “The Bridge” won numerous awards though lost the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film to Marcel Camus’s “Black Orpheus.”

“Come and See” was released in 1985, but Klimov had begun work on the screenplay with Ales Adamovich in 1977 as “The 40th anniversary of the Great Victory was approaching. ….

“I had been reading and rereading the book 'I Am from the Burning Village,' which consisted of the first-hand accounts of people who miraculously survived the horrors of the fascist genocide in Belorussia. Many of them were still alive then…. I will never forget the face and eyes of one peasant, and his quiet recollection about how his whole village had been herded into a church, and how just before they were about to be burned, an officer of the Sonderkommando gave them the offer: ‘Whoever has no children can leave.’ And he couldn't take it, he left, and left behind his wife and little kids... or about how another village was burned: the adults were all herded into a barn, but the children were left behind. And later, the drunk men surrounded them with sheepdogs and let the dogs tear the children to pieces.

“And then I thought: the world doesn't know about Khatyn! They know about Katyn, about the massacre of the Polish officers there. But they don't know about Belorussia. Even though more than 600 villages were burned there!”

“Come and See” is set in 1943. Just as the Germans had no men left to conscript toward the end of the war, so the Russian Red Army had fewer and fewer appropriately aged soldiers and began to conscript young boys and elderly men.* “Come and See” is the account of one young boy who is literally dragged from his mother’s arms and thrown in with a platoon of Russian soldiers in the waning days of the war. We experience the film, we see it, through his eyes, and a harrowing view it is – almost as hard for us to process as it is for him. The film is close to dialog-less. The words, the syntax, the semiotics, do not exist to describe the chaos, the carnage and the utter meaninglessness of it. All the boy can do, all Klimov can do, all we can do is to bear witness.

Elem Klimov's 1985 "Come and See"
We in the West – the United States and Europe – wince at the conscription of children into rebel militias in African nations, as if it were a barbaric practice of which we are innocent. Yet, though not enlisted compulsorily, boys as young as 12 enlisted in the British Army during World War I, some to fulfil a youthful ideal of patriotism, others because alternative prospects for survival seemed infinitely more grim. In 1924, after World War I, the League of Nations adopted the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child to protect children “against every form of exploitation.” The problem was that no definition of “child” was universally recognized by the outbreak of World War II.

By the fall of 1941, much of the Soviet Red Army was destroyed and desperate for new divisions. Underage Soviet teenagers, in thrall to patriotic fervor (and superior food rations), wanted to fight the Germans. Some joined at nine or eleven and stayed with their regiments until they were discharged at fourteen or sixteen, often with medals of honor. The Germans, too, removed huge numbers of German youths from school in early 1945. They were sent on what can only be described as suicide missions.

Into this context comes Danish filmmaker Martin Zandvliet’s 2015 “Land of Mine,” among the nominees for the 2017 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The film’s Danish title is “Under sandet,” and it is a shame distributors did not opt for the literal translation “Under the Sand,” which possesses a certain poetry the clumsy, double-meaning “Land of Mine” lacks. With “The Bridge” and “Come and See,” “Land of Mine” could round out a perfectly curated trilogy on the unwitting child warriors of World War II’s European Theater.

It is May 1945. The Germans have surrendered. The Allies determine that disarmed German soldiers are not prisoners of war but “Surrendered Military Personnel” (SEP, the British designation) or “disarmed enemy forces” (DEF, the American designation) who have surrendered unconditionally. Therefore, the Geneva Convention, which guards against prisoner of war abuses, can be ignored. Surrendered German soldiers can be put to work as slave labor performing the most deadly of tasks. More than 2,000, most barely teenagers, are sent to Denmark and entrusted to Danish authorities, who assign them to clear the Danish coast of two million landmines. More than half will be killed or seriously injured.

The Germans had planted the bombs along the Danish coast in anticipation of an Allied invasion that never happened, and the captured squads of German youths, after some rudimentary training in defusing mines, are handed over to Sergeant Carl Leopold Rasmussen (Roland Møller in a stunning performance), a man so consumed by revenge and rage that his response to his enemy is unmitigated sadism. He allows himself to reason that since Germany laid the mines, Germans should clear them.

Martin Zandvliet's 2015 "Land of Mine"
The fear we feel for the German boys as they crawl across the sand on their bellies is given some respite by the sheer beauty of the Danish coastal plains. The khaki colored military uniforms, the sand of the beaches, the grasses of the plains give Camilla Hjelm Knudsen’s lyrical cinematography an almost monochromatic feel. The score by Sune Martin is a beautiful contrapunt to the harrowing suspense of the boys’ daily exercises.

Roland Moller as Sergeant Rasmussen in "Land of Mine"
Rasmussen is a complex man. We wish time and again that his day in, day out relationship to his charges, just boys after all, will punch a chink in his armor – just as some of us wish that our own politicians would find compassion for lives rent asunder by senseless war. We have seen children dead in the rubble of Aleppo, Syrian child refuges washed up on Mediterranean shores. UNICEF reports that, in new patterns of conflict, “[D]eliberate attacks against civilians are increasingly turning children into primary targets of war.” A United Nations report by Graça Machel, the UN Secretary-General's Expert on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, notes that “Armed conflict kills and maims more children than soldiers.” When will we ever learn? “So it goes,” punctuates Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” with the doomed knell of futility.




* World War II Military Losses from All Causes
Allies: United States 407,300; United Kingdom 383, 700; Soviet Union 8,668,000-11,400,000
Axis Powers: Germany 4,440,000-5,318,000; Italy 319,200 nationals and approximately 20,000 conscripted African; Japan 2,100,000-2,300,000.

February 21, 2017

A QUEST FOR POETRY: JIM JARMUSCH'S "PATERSON"

“Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work.”
                ~~Chuck Close

“Oh bless the continuous stutter
Of the word being made into flesh.”
                ~~Leonard Cohen, “The Window”

“Just when I thought there wasn’t room enough
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea –
call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly,
it involved living the way philosophers live,
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?”
~~John Ashbery, “My Philosophy of Life”

Jim Jarmusch’s new film “Paterson” – about a poet named Paterson who drives a bus for a living in Paterson, New Jersey – is concerned not simply with poetry and the craft of prosody, but with the very nature of language itself. Not only do other poets inhabit “Paterson” – a rap artist who composes in a laundromat, a 10-year-old girl, a Japanese poet on a pilgrimage to Paterson, home of William Carlos Williams – but the film is teeming with myriad varieties of linguistic rhythm and style: in street talk; in conversations on the bus (guy talk, kid talk, would-be anarchist talk, old lady talk); in conversations in the neighborhood watering hole (bar stories, lovers’ quarrels, wifely scolds) – each is a kind of quotidian poetry in itself.


“Paterson” – the film, the character, the town – is an unveiled reference to William Carlos Williams’s epic poem “Paterson,” also about Paterson, New Jersey, the town in which Williams lived and practiced medicine. In the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein and Wallace Stevens, Williams sought to reject European poetic diction for a distinctly American idiom drawn from the inflections of everyday speech and conveyed through free verse cadences. At the height of his critical acclaim, Williams published the collection “Spring and All” in 1922, the year that T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” appeared, eclipsing Williams’s achievement. In his “Selected Essays” Williams would write, “Critically, Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on a point to escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself – rooted in the locality which should give it fruit.”

For his epic poem “Paterson,” published in five volumes from 1946-1958, in a departure from his lyric method as he approached his latter years, Williams developed a collage-like documentary approach. In a press release for the publication of Book IV, in 1951, Williams described as the central theme of the poem “the resemblance between the mind of modern man and the city.” He wanted the poem to “speak for us in a language we can understand.”

Jarmusch, too, uses every tool in his writer/director arsenal to draw us in to a language we can understand. On the popular low end, Jarmusch delights in sight gags, hyperbole and understatement, taboo, slapstick, mistaken identity. On the literary high end, he pulls out all the stops: aphorisms, doppelgängers, archetypes, negative capability, paradox. His favorite tropes are synecdoche in which a part of something refers to its whole or vice versa and metonymy in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name but by a name of something associated in meaning with that thing or concept. He always employs episodic sequences, which give his stories the structure of classic quest narratives and confers upon even the most commonplace characters, if not mythic status, at the very least the standing of an Everyman – the ordinary individual who faces extraordinary circumstances.

Jarmusch is always awash in allusion and doubling, and twins abound in “Paterson.” Directed outward, Jarmusch films are veritable troves of references to artists, poets, writers, musicians, film directors, scientists, et al., whether through incidental mention (Adam’s wall of fame in “Only Lovers Left Alive” or Doc [Barry Shabaka Henley] the bartender’s in “Paterson”) or direct advertence (like William Blake in “Dead Man”). They are just as packed self-referentially; the oeuvre – in which actors, for example, share names with characters who reference actual people and previous Jarmusch characters – alludes to itself in a mise-en-abyme on many levels. In his first film, “Permanent Vacation,” the main character is Chris Parker – played by Chris Parker – whose artistic doppelgänger is the jazz musician Charlie Parker. Adam Driver’s incarnation of Paterson is beautifully subtle, expressive, and deeply felt, but it is no accident that the actor cast for the role is named Adam Driver: Adam and Eve are the titular vampires of “Only Lovers Left Alive” in Jarmusch’s last film, and Paterson is a driver of a bus. 

“Paterson” takes place over the course of a week, each sequence structured by the arc of a day and the rhythms of the hours. We meet Paterson on Monday. He wakes each morning midway between 6:00 and 6:30, reaches for his wrist watch, checks the time, puts it on and kisses his lover (Golshifteh Farahani) before getting out of bed. Her name is Laura, like Petrarch’s muse, and the sweethearts share a secret microcosm of their own special making.

Paterson eats Cheerios from a small glass bowl and thinks of words, leaves the house with his lunch pail, walks through the neighborhood – putting words together in his mind – headed to the old factory district where the bus garage sits, steals a few moments to write in his notebook, checks out with the bus manager Donny (Rizwan Manji), then starts his engine and drives out into the macrocosm that is Paterson. Each day Paterson returns to the little world he makes with Laura and his little basement desk arrayed with a library of poets – mostly the New York School, but “Infinite Jest” is there, too.


Laura is something of a naif and most comfortable in black and white, figuratively and literally. She is an extrovert who rarely goes out. He is an introvert who is very much of the world. She dreams, he is: a fundamental, existential difference. The couple seem to adore one another, and he writes achingly beautiful poetry about her, but art is one thing and the daily sharing of a life with another flawed individual is something else altogether. (One of those love poems ends: “How embarrassing.”) Laura is mercurial, dreaming of creating cupcakes one day, imagining herself a famous country western star the next. Driver’s range of expression allows us to see Paterson’s genuine love for Laura, but it also betrays his frustration, sometimes even hurt, when her self-involvement makes her insensitive.

Place typically functions as a character in a Jarmusch film, and the world of Paterson is a very Jarmusch-esque place. Originally inhabited by the Acquackanonk tribe of the Lenape Nation, the area was first claimed by the Dutch to become the New Netherlands, then by the British to become the Province of New Jersey. Located on the power source of the 77-foot-high Great Falls of the Passaic River, Paterson became the first planned industrial city in the United States in 1791, making it a destination for immigrant laborers, particularly Italian weavers drawn to the textile industry, especially silk production. Indeed, by the early 19th century, Paterson was known as “Silk City.” By the 20th century, the harsh conditions in the factories fomented a labor revolt, and in 1913, labor leaders organized a six-month-long silk industry strike, ostensibly for an eight-hour day and minimum age restrictions. Concerns regarding working conditions, however, were secondary to the overarching fears that echo the anxiety of today’s blue collar worker. In 1911, in nearby Clifton, New Jersey, mill owners had installed a multiple-loom system that required fewer workers. The Paterson strike, predominantly fueled by fear of job loss, failed because adaptation to the new technology was necessary to make Paterson’s mills competitive. Resistance to the multiple-loom system would have put the Paterson mills out of business altogether.

More than any other American director, Jim Jarmusch understands America as a melting pot reflected in his casts and characters. Today, Paterson is home to some of the largest immigrant communities in the United States: Bangladeshi, Turkish, Arab, Palestinian, Albanian, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Peruvian. It is home to the second-largest population by percentage of Muslims in the United States, estimated at 25,000-30,000. As a haven for aliens and outsiders, the very setting of the film speaks volumes to the Jarmusch project, which inevitably incorporates characters – played by actors – who are themselves outsiders: here Laura as an immigrant and Paterson as a poet, certainly an outsider avocation in 21st century America. Indeed, the film is punctuated with the question, “Are you a poet?” to which Paterson always answers not simply, “No,” but, “No, I’m just a bus driver.” Yet Jarmusch is telling us, as he has in more than a dozen films before, it is true and honorable and good to be a poet.

The poems in “Paterson” were written by Ron Padgett (with the exception of the 10-year-old girl’s poem “Water Falls,” which Jarmusch wrote). Padgett is among a group of poets considered the second generation of New York School poets, the original school of which grew out of the influence of William Carlos Williams’s direct conversational style and urbane wit. The New York School of poetry paralleled the New York School of abstract expressionist painting and the poets were friends of the painters, among them Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns. Surrealism and the modernist interest in stream of consciousness (Williams began work on “Paterson” after reading James Joyce’s “Ulysses”) shaped their technique, as well. Along with Williams, Barbara Guest, James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery and the poet under whom the second generation studied, Kenneth Koch, made up the New York School. In addition to Padgett, the second generation includes Ted Barrigan, Joseph Ceravolo, Frank Lima, Joe Brainard, Lewis Warsh, Anne Waldman, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, and Tom Savage. Perhaps Jarmusch’s film will lead some of us back to rediscover the power of these poets’ works.

Poetry flows through Paterson – the film, the character, the town – like the Great Falls to which our poet repairs. The craft – the over and over of it day in, day out – is first and foremost the craft of reflection, and Frederick Elmes’s expressive cinematography caresses the reflection in which Paterson the poet is absorbed. The glass of the bus windshield reflects the streets of Paterson; the water of the Great Falls reflects the natural world around it; even the puddles in the girl’s poem “Water Falls” reflect.


Jarmusch has a fascination with the flâneur, and Paterson’s poetry grows out of his being in the world of society that he watches and eavesdrops on in a state of heightened awareness. He traverses the man-made world of urban architecture (the art we live in, walk in, travel through) as well as the world of nature each day, every day. SQÜRL’s music (Carter Logan and Jim Jarmusch) gives Paterson’s perambulations and his daily exit from the depot an almost holy quality. For the poet, that holiness is forged through the crucible of language. Jarmusch understands that we each manipulate language to make narrative sense of life as lived. We do not merely state what happened. We tell a story, which is to say, we do nothing less than create myth – a story that is bigger than life in its episodic configuration. When the bus breaks down, a boy asks “Did it run out of gas?” “No. Just an electrical problem.” “Sabotage probably,” the boy ominously suggests. With each retelling of this story, one after another of Paterson’s listeners speculates, it could have “turned into a fireball!” No mere bus breakdown this. No, it could have been a conflagration. “Story, finally,” the celebrated children’s author Lloyd Alexander observed, “is humanity’s autobiography.” Paradoxically, when tragedy does befall our poet, he meets it with silence, until a Mysterious Stranger (Masatoshi Nagase) directs him back toward reflection and emotion recollected in tranquility.


“Paterson”
In select theaters
Netflix: April 2017
Redbox: April 2017
Writer/Director: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani
Rating: R
Running Time: 1 h 58m

December 16, 2016

AN EDDYING, ABSURDIST MELTING POT: THE FILMS OF JIM JARMUSCH

"Passing through, passing through.
Sometimes happy, sometimes blue.
Glad that I ran into you.
Tell the people that you saw me passing through.”
~~Leonard Cohen, “Passing Through” (written by R. Blakeslee)

“I’m just a station on your way,/I know I’m not your lover.” ~~Leonard Cohen, “Winter Lady”

Jim Jarmusch’s vision is quintessentially American, just as Jarmusch himself is quintessentially American: born in middle America (Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, raised in Akron), a middle child of a German-Irish mother and Czech-German father. Yet though born American, Jarmusch sees America through an alien’s eyes. Jarmusch’s America is tacky, dilapidated, littered and absurd, but it’s got a great soundtrack, and its people are redeemed by each other as they pass through on their quests to become themselves on the one hand and conform to this elusive time and elusive place on the other. 

Jim Jarmusch
Among American directors, I can think of only two who incorporate foreign and foreign-born actors and characters as casually as French, Belgian and various Scandinavian directors do. One is Ramin Bahrani, who was born to Iranian parents in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and has explored the immigrant experience in “Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop,” and “Goodbye Solo.” The other is Jarmusch, whose casts and crews are typically international.

Jarmusch's actors employ a masterful deadpan delivery in the tradition of Buster Keaton, Peter Sellers, and Ben Stein, effected in Jarmusch’s absurdism through John Lurie, Masatoshi Nagase, Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker, Bill Murray, Isaach de Bankolé, Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton. All encapsulate the essential quality of this particular form of comic genius – that their characters, regardless of the utter absurdity of their situations, retain their dignity and humanity. Often these laconic souls share the stage with a chatterbox like Roberto Benigni’s Bob in “Down by Law”; Youki Kudoh’s Mitsuko and Elizabeth Bracco’s Dee Dee in “Mystery Train”; Benigni’s cabbie in “Night on Earth”; and Mia Wasikowska’s Ava in “Only Lovers Left Alive.”

STRUCTURE
One might say that nothing much happens in a Jarmusch film, and yet, Jarmusch characters are always on the move – walking the mean streets of New York or scrambling across the swamps of Louisiana, rumbling down the line to Memphis or Machine, motoring along highways, taxiing through metropoles, floating downriver to the spirit world, jetting across oceans or simply moving through the circumscribed contours of a town or a room. 

Outside the rooms, Jarmusch’s characters travel. In “Permanent Vacation,” Allie, the modern-day flâneur, performs his peregrination through the streets of downtown Manhattan like a meditation, ready to embark for Paris at the end. 


In “Stranger Than Paradise,” Willie and Eddie, fleeing gamblers they've swindled, cruise from the Lower East Side to Cleveland to small town Florida. On their way from New York to Cleveland, Eddie remarks, “You know, it’s funny. You come to someplace new and everything looks just the same.” “No kidding,” Willie concurs. Every town has the same abandoned factories, the same rundown motels, the same suburban neighborhoods, and the same McMansion sub-divisions. In “Down by Law,” the trio of misfits move from the streets of New Orleans to the jailhouse to the bayou, heading for refuge in...Texas maybe...or LA. 


In “Mystery Train,” everyone ends up at the Arcade at some point, a not-so-grand hotel of intersections, arrivals and departures. The young couple from Yokohama, Jun and Mitsuko, who arrive by train in Memphis to pay homage to Elvis, Carl Perkins and Sun Records will board again to head to New Orleans and pay their respects to Fats Domino; Luisa will take her husband’s corpse from Memphis back to Rome; Dee Dee will catch the train from Memphis to Natchez; and Johnny, Will and Charlie will flee from Memphis – maybe to Arkansas – to escape the long arm of the law. “You hear that?” “I can hear a train.” “I hear sirens.” 


Taken together, “Stranger Than Paradise,” “Down by Law” and the three tales that make up the Arcade Hotel suite that constitutes “Mystery Train” demonstrate a Jarmuschian truth: the ubiquity of human stupidity on the one hand and the willingness to act as one’s brother’s keeper on the other. Through it all, the world is on the move – and keeps on moving in the five more tales that make up “Night on Earth” as Jarmusch taxis through Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki.

In “Dead Man,” the American doppelganger of William Blake begins his journey west on a steam locomotive from Cleveland to the end of the line in Machine, and then, through the wilderness on horseback to the River Styx and the canoe that will take him to the other side. In “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai,” somewhere, in a place like Jersey City, a modern-day samurai survives – for a while – by his code and his wits. In “Broken Flowers” a modern-day Don Juan traverses rural Upstate New York and New Jersey by plane, bus and rental car in search of lost time.  


In “The Limits of Control,” Lone Man sets out from urban Madrid, one train after another, until his final guide in a battered pickup takes him to carry out his mission in the desert. Only then can he return to the capital. Vampiric incarnations of the archetypal Adam and Eve rely on jetliners to get from Tangier to Detroit to Tangier in “Only Lovers Left Alive,” and in “Paterson,” a poet named Paterson pilots a bus around Paterson, New Jersey, finding the profound in the quotidian.


Always, Jarmusch films are episodic and deceptively minimalist. One can say of them: this happens, then this happens, then that happens, but they are first and foremost about atmosphere and only secondarily about plot. 

This is especially true of his first film, “Permanent Vacation,” which is a mood piece that takes place over the course of a day. His third, “Down by Law,” begins, not so much with two plot lines as with two unrelated characters. Two New Orleanian losers, Zack and Jack, find themselves thrown together through happenstance with a hyper Italian named Bob. Bob proposes an jail break, which sets the trio in motion. At the end, Bob finds sanctuary, and his cohorts find themselves where two roads diverge in a wood. Jack and Zack agree, you go your way and I go mine.

“Mystery Train” tells three distinct stories, and though one character overlaps the second and third stories, otherwise the only connection is that all of the characters, under different circumstances, find themselves at the Arcade Hotel in Memphis. The five stories that make up “Night on Earth” bear no connection geographically or otherwise and no overlap of characters, but they share thematic concerns of the problems of language and misunderstanding caused by surface assumptions based on outward appearances.

“Dead Man” is a more linear story that moves back and forth between the man with a bounty on his head and the bounty hunters pursuing him. Likewise “Ghost Dog,” where Jarmusch has moved from the Wild West to an east coast metropolis and replaced bounty hunters with the mob. The mirroring of William Blake in “Dead Man” allows Jarmusch overtly to explore existential and metaphysical concerns about the intertwined nature of the inner and outer journeys that comprise a life, and “Ghost Dog” allows an exploration of how one creates a context by which to give one’s outward action meaning that informs the inward journey.


“Coffee and Cigarettes” is Jarmusch’s least conventional film. Released in 2003, it is series of eleven vignettes, the oldest of which, “Strange to Meet You,” was filmed as a short in 1986. With a few exceptions each takes place in a coffee shop, restaurant, diner or juke joint, often with shots from above so that the checkerboard tablecloths evoke chess boards, as if to suggest that the characters’ slightly combative conversations over coffee and cigarettes are the equivalent of a strategic game of competitive chess. (In “Paterson,” Paterson the poet will watch Doc the barman play chess against himself.) 


“Coffee and Cigarettes” is an anomaly in Jarmusch’s more recent work. “Broken Flowers” and “The Limits of Control” are heir to “Dead Man” and “Ghost Dog.” They are obvious quest tales in Joseph Campbell’s classic sense of the Hero’s Journey. “Dead Man” organizes itself around the visionary poet William Blake and the American Myth of the West; “Ghost Dog” around the teachings of the "Hagakure," "The Way of the Samurai." “Broken Flowers” is something of a “Don Juan at Rest” ala John Updike’s Harry Rabbit. The structure of “Only Lovers Left Alive” is dictated by Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” though it is not without its Jarmuschian detours.

LANGUAGE, DOUBLING, ALLUSION AND PLAIN OL' NAME DROPPING

Again, among the recurring devices Jarmusch employs, one is the attention he accords to the problem of language, translation and miscommunication. (Sofia Coppola’s 2003 “Lost in Translation” deals with similar concerns and shares actor Bill Murray so that I sometimes mistakenly want to attribute it to Jarmusch.) Allusion is also a significant element in the Jarmuschian oeuvre. Jarmusch studied under Nicholas Ray, best known for his 1955 “Rebel Without a Cause,” and worked as Ray's personal assistant during the time that Wim Wenders was filming his 1980 documentary about Ray, “Lightening Over Water.” In “Permanent Vacation,” Allie steps into a movie house showing Ray’s 1960 “The Savage Innocents,” and in “The Limits of Control,” Lone Man passes a movie poster in Spanish for Ray’s 1950 “In a Lonely Place,” but Jarmusch's character Blonde is the figure in the trench coat instead of Dorothy Hughes who co-starred with Humphrey Bogart.

Jarmusch, a student of literature and art history, spent a good part of his youth watching matinee double B-features, a good part of his early adulthood in Paris at the Cinémathèque Française, and, upon his return to New York, worked as a musician. The horses in the racing form in “Stranger Than Paradise” include Late Spring, Passing Fancy and Tokyo Story – all titles of Yasujirō Ozu films.

Doubling is everywhere in Jarmusch-land. Actors cross-populate from film to film. Twins and cousins people the vignettes of "Coffee and Cigarettes." Shared names – between actor and character, between character and musician or cultural icon or literary figure, between one film and another – create a doppelgänger effect that also functions as a kind of Everyman effect. In “Permanent Vacation,” the actor Chris Parker plays Aloysious (Allie) Christopher Parker who ruminates on jazz saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker. 

In “Stranger Than Paradise,” the Hungarian-born Willie (John Lurie) has worked to shed his Hungarian-ness, not wanting to be seen as an outsider. “Are you Bela Molnar,” his cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) asks at his door, newly arrived from Budapest. “No… I used to be. Call me Willie, if you have to call me something.” Just as he has chastised his Aunt Lotte (Cecilia Stark), “Speak English, please!” (in vain), when Eva replies in Hungarian, he insists, “Don’t speak Hungarian at all. Only English. All right. While you’re here, only English.” 

Willie’s gambling buddy is Eddie (Richard Edson) – “Willie” and “Eddie” are diminutive names formed with the “ie” suffix. It’s not as close a match as Jack and Zack will be in “Down by Law,” but it seems fair to say that these are conscious decisions Jarmusch makes when writing his screenplays.

Misunderstanding sometimes causes hurt, but in Jarmusch’s world, it is usuallly a font of humor. In “Down by Law,” both Jack (John Lurie) and Zach (Tom Waits) are in jail because they have been set up. Ironically, sweet, funny Bob (Roberto Benigni) has actually committed murder, though in self-defense. 


Once in the cell with Jack and Zack, the Italian Bob can’t help but be confused as to which name goes with which cellmate. Bob speaks scant English, mostly composed of idiomatic expressions and colloquialisms he has collected in a little notebook, which compounds the difficulty for translation. When Zack tells Bob to “Buzz off,” Bob delights in the sheer sound of it without any sense of what it means. His fondness for the pure sound of language has translated into a love of poetry, and he tries to connect by asking about American poets. He asks if Jack and Zack have read Walt Whitman and Robert Frost. Bob knows them both – albeit in Italian – so that when he has to turn Whitman back into English it comes out “Leaves of Glass.” And then, of course, there’s that road not taken as the backdrop for the final scene.

In “Mystery Train” in the first story “Far from Yokohama,” the night clerk (Screamin' Jay Hawkins) and the bellboy (Cinqué Lee) at the Arcade Hotel can’t understand the Japanese couple (Masatoshi Nagase as Jun and Youki Kudoh as Mitsuko). Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco) in the second tale, “A Ghost,” is Johnny’s girlfriend and Charlie’s sister in the third tale, “Lost in Space,” which is confused by Johnny aka Elvis (Joe Strummer), Will (Rick Aviles) and Charlie’s (Steve Buscemi) drunkenness.

Charlie is struck by the fact that Johnny’s friend’s name is William Robinson, the same as the character in the 1960s TV show “Lost in Space” – and the same as Daniel Defoe’s castaway Robinson Crusoe and Johann David Wyss’s shipwrecked Swiss Family Robinson. The TV title and the episode title connote two different meanings of “space”: the colonists of the TV show are lost in outer space; Jarmusch’s protagonists are lost in the spaces of America and in inner space.

Elvis is everywhere in “Mystery Train,” and that second episode, “A Ghost,” will be echoed three movies later (not counting the 1997 concert film) in “Ghost Dog.” The D.J. who punctuates the soundtrack of “Mystery Train,” though we never see him, is the D.J. Zack from “Down by Law” – here transported from New Orleans to Memphis.

Among the stories that compose “Night on Earth,” the problem of communication and misunderstanding between cabbie and fare links the stories. In the New York episode, the cabbie (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who was a clown in his native East Germany, is named Helmut, a common enough name in Germany, but to a New York hipster (Giancarlo Esposito) “a helmet would be, like, you know, like something you wear on your head? …. In English, that'd be like calling your kid ‘Lampshade’.” The irony in the fact that the hipster’s name is Yo Yo (doubled like Dee Dee in “Mystery Train”) is lost on the hipster. Helmut thinks being named after a toy is funny. Frustrated, Yo Yo explains the name has nothing to do with the toy. When Helmut puts the issue to rest saying, “Your name Yo Yo. My name Helmut. Yo Yo, Helmut. It's good,” we get the sense that this kind of good-humored acceptance is utterly necessary to survival as an outsider. 


The Paris episode involves two types of otherness. The driver from the Ivory Coast (Isaach De Bankolé) is an immigrant. His fare (Béatrice Dalle) is blind. The cultural differences are twofold: driver and rider differ ethnically on the one hand and in their sensory experience of the world on the other. The conceit revolves around blindness both literal and figurative – what we have or do not have the ability to see and what we choose or do not choose to see.

An encounter on the street in the Paris segment elicits overt xenophobic slurring. “You think you're in your jungle here?” street punks want to know. “We're not from the same jungle, are we? …. These little brothers who come to France, don't they have any respect? .... You from Togo? From Gabon?” “The Ivory Coast.” “Ivory Coast. He's an ‘Ivoirien.’” They play on the word and taunt, “Can't see a thing!’ That explains it! He's an “Y voit rien’,” they pun. It makes sense to include explicit bigotry in a suite of stories about cabbies, for to be the object of bigotry is not only part of the immigrant experience but surely encountered by immigrant taxi drivers the world over.

When the Ivoirien’s fare refuses to get out of the taxi, he discovers she is blind. Now, she is the other. “Must be a real drag being blind?” he says, without a trace of spite or malice. “I can do anything you can and a lot of things you'll never do,” she says defensively. “I'm blind, that's all.” “I don't know any blind people,” he says by way of apology. “I'm curious, that's all.” “I'm just like you. I drink, I eat, I taste things. I listen to music. I feel music. I do whatever I want.” This conviction is at the heart of Jarmusch’s project – that in the face of our myriad differences is the truth of our shared humanity.

Jarmusch uses the doubling of the character played by Johnny Depp with the seminal English poet of the Romatic Age William Blake to stunning metaphysical effect in “Dead Man,” allowing for Depp's character to be simultaneously dead and alive. The odious metalworks owner John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum in his final film role) ironically evokes the great American poet Emily Dickinson who wrote the poem “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” and William Blake’s guide is the Indian Exaybachay who goes by Nobody (Gary Farmer).

Nobody is conceived in the tradition of Chingachgook, who serves as Natty Bumppo’s guide in James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Leather-stocking Tales”; of Ishmael (the name is that of the son of Abraham who is the first of the three patriarchs of Judaism), who narrates Ahab’s tale in Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick”; of Jim, the runaway slave who travels down the Mississippi with Huck Finn in Mark Twain’s masterwork; of Tonto in "The Lone Ranger"; even of Spock who advises Capt. Kirk in the final frontier. As Tzvetan Todorov observes in “The Conquest of America: The Question of Other,” “the discovery self makes of the other” (Harper and Row, 1984. p. 247). The trope is not unique to American literature. It goes back to the early novel – Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Robinson Crusoe and Friday – but it finds its greatest expression in the American canon where the native guide becomes the vehicle for the protagonists’ moral awakening.

Johnny Depp as William Blake and Gary Farmer as Nobody
in "Dead Man"
Nobody tells William Blake his story. As a young man he was captured by English soldiers. “I was then taken east in a cage. I was taken to Toronto, then Philadelphia, and then to New York. And each time I arrived in another city, somehow the white men had moved all their people there ahead of me. Each new city contained the same white people as the last, and I could not understand how a whole city of people could be moved so quickly. Eventually, I was taken on a ship across the great sea over to England, and I was paraded before them like a captured animal, an exhibit. And so I mimicked them, imitating their ways, hoping that they might lose interest in this young savage, but their interest only grew. So they placed me into the white man's schools. It was there that I discovered in a book the words that you, William Blake, had written. They were powerful words, and they spoke to me. But I made careful plans, and I eventually escaped. Once again, I crossed the great ocean. I saw many sad things as I made my way back to the lands of my people. Once they realized who I was, the stories of my adventures angered them. They called me a liar. ‘Exaybachay.’ He Who Talks Loud, Saying Nothing. They ridiculed me. My own people. And I was left to wander the earth alone. I am Nobody.”

Poetry is another kind of language, a heightened, figurative language. Certainly, Jarmusch’s work abounds in metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony, what the literary theorist Kenneth Burke called the four master tropes in “A Grammar of Motives” (U of California Press, 1969). Nobody says to William Blake, “It's so strange that you don't remember any of your poetry.” “I don't know anything about poetry,” says William Blake, the accountant. But Nobody does. Bob, the Italian in “Down by Law” does, and in “Paterson,” we will encounter a poet in the here and now, a poet whose quest is not through the mythopoeic Wild West, but through the quotidian streets of Paterson, New Jersey.

Jarmusch uses Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s 18th century samurai treatise “Hagakure” as a structuring device in “Ghost Dog.” The “Konjaku Monogatarishū” – especially the tale of “Rashōmon” with its rumination on the often immoral acts we commit to survive and the trickery of point of view – figures prominently, as well, and is also a reference to Akiri Kurosawa’s 1950 film. As do all Jarmusch films, “Ghost Dog” proceeds episodically, and the episodes are marked by passages from the "Hagakure," the first of which reads: “Serving one’s master is the most fundamental thing for a retainer.” Louie (John Tormey) – note the name –  is a mid-level mobster who saved the young Ghost Dog’s life, and fealty to one’s protector is at the core of the samurai’s code. Ghost Dog only communicates with Louie through messages printed in almost microscopic script, folded and attached to his homing pigeons’ legs. Similarly, when we reach “The Limits of Control,” folded messages again will be relayed, only in code. A miscommunication causes events to go awry, putting Ghost Dog on the final path of Bushido, the way of honor until death. A summation of the Bushido philosophy of honor and reputation above all else is bound up in the saying, "I have found the way of the warrior is death."

Forest Whitaker as Ghost Dog in "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai"

“Coffee and Cigarettes,” it is interesting to note, opens to the sound of The Kingsmen's “Louie Louie.” The eleven segments that make up “Coffee and Cigarettes” are filled with cousins (in “Cousins,” the two cousins – one of whom is named Cate – are both played by Cate Banchett) and twins, and twins will inhabit a dream sequence in "Paterson." The vignette entitled “Twins” includes a disquisition on Elvis’s evil twin. In “Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil,” the actors play themselves, and Jack Black shows Meg Black his replica Tesla coil while explaining the thwarted achievements of Nikola Tesla, which could have transformed the globe into an ecological miracle. 

The Don Johnston "with a 't'" (Bill Murray) of “Broken Flowers” is Don Juan (both Gabriel Téllez’s and Byron’s), Don Johnson (best known for his role in the television series “Miami Vice”), and perhaps the father of a teenage son as well, at least so the pink letter in red ink that comes from the tappity tap tap of a manual typewriter on the soundtrack we hear as the film opens would have it. When the screen comes into focus, we follow the letter’s journey from typewriter to letter box to mail van through sorting machines until finally, it is in a postal carrier’s bag and finds its destination in Don Johnston’s letter slot. The letter’s path parallels the peripatetic nature of Jarmusch’s characters – though without the characters' intentionality. Throughout the montage and throughout the film, the Greenhornes’ “There Is an End” plays, spinning the thematic thread of ephemerality.

Mostly Don sits motionless on his living room sofa, listening to his record player or watching TV. We can assume from a remark Don makes about Ethiopian coffee that Don’s neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), an amateur sleuth, and his wife (Heather Simms) are immigrants. Winston presses the laconic Don to investigate. “You need to treat this as a sign.” “What kind of sign?” Don wants to know. “Of the direction of your life. Of this present moment. You need to solve this mystery….” 

Bill Murray as Don Johnston in "Broken Flowers"
“The Limits of Control” is something of a latter-day Medieval morality play, an allegorical drama in which the characters personify moral qualities, e.g. charity, vice, or abstractions, e.g. death, youth. The protagonist is typically an Everyman who encounters characters who are personifications of moral attributes of good and evil. It is up to him to choose redemption over ruination.

The influence of “Last Year at Marienbad,” the work that grew out of a collaboration between New Novel writer Alain Robbe-Grillet and New Wave director Alain Resnais is everywhere in Jarmusch, but nowhere as conspicuous as in “The Limits of Control.” In both, the unnamed characters move through dreamlike-scapes – Marienbad’s château corridors and garden grounds in the former; the low mountain ranges of Seville, Almería, and into the Tabernas desert in the latter.

Only three main characters interact in “Marienbad.” In the screenplay, the woman is referred to as "A," the man who insists he met her at Marienbad the year before is "X," and the man who may be her husband is "M." Periodically, the men play a Nim-like mathematical game of strategy with wooden matches.

In “The Limits of Control,” there are no actual names either. We follow Lone Man (Isaach de Bankolé) – the appellation recalling Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name – on his mission. His first rendezvous is with Creole (Alex Descas) who translates for French (Jean-François Stévenin): “Use your imagination and your skills. Everything is subjective. He who thinks he is bigger than the rest must go to the cemetery. There he will see what life really is. It’s a handful of dust. La vida no vale nada. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” French says, but Creole does not translate, “The universe has no center and no edges. Reality is arbitrary.” Upon his approach Creole has asked – rhetorically – “You don’t speak Spanish, right?" and at each station it will be asked again, as well as some part of this cryptic incantation, one contact after another.

Isaach de Bankolé as Lone Man in "The Limits of Control"
At the next assignation, Violin (Luis Tosar) asks, “Are you interested in music by any chance? I believe that musical instruments, especially those made out of wood – cellos, violins, guitars – I believe that they resonate, musically, even when they are not being played. They have a memory. Every note that’s ever been played on them is still inside of them resonating in the molecules of the wood.”

Nude (Paz de la Huerta) asks, “Do you like sex?” and later, “Do you like Schubert by any chance? ” Blonde (Tilda Swinton) asks, “Are you interested in film by any chance? I really like old films. …. The best films are like dreams you’re never sure you’ve really had. I have this image in my head of a room full of sand, and a bird flies towards me, and dips its wing into the sand. And I honestly have no idea whether this image came from a dream or a film. Sometimes I like it in films when people just sit there not saying anything.” 

Tilda Swinton as Blonde in "The Limits of Control"
Molecules (Youki Kudoh) asks, “Are you interested in science by any chance? I’m interested in molecules. The Sufis say each one of us is a planet spinning in ecstasy. But I say, each one of us is a set of shifting molecules spinning ecstasy." In "Paterson," the poet will observe, "I go through trillions of molecules that move aside to make way for me while on both sides trillions more stay where they are."

"In the near future," Molecules continues, "worn out things will be made new again by reconfiguring their molecules. A pair of shoes. A tire. Molecular detection will also allow the determination of an object’s physical history. This matchbox, for example. Its collection of molecules could indicate everywhere it’s ever been. They could do it with your clothes. Or even with your skin, for that matter.” Then in Japanese she says, “The universe has no center and no edges.”

Youki Kudoh as Molecules in "The Limits of Control"
Guitar (John Hurt) asks, as have the others, “You don’t speak Spanish, right? No. I don’t speak Spanish, either. Except maybe when I’m in Spain. Would one still call those ‘bohemians’?” he wonders about the flamenco artists Lone Man is watching. “My grandfather was Bohemian. You know, in the Prague sense. I strongly doubt that he would have had any bloody sympathy for those kinds of bohemians. And then of course, they are often the true artists, are they not? Are you interested in art by any chance? Maybe painting perhaps? Yes. Well, as we were discussing, the derivation of the usage of bohemian – in reference to artists or artistic types – wasn’t that it? I don’t know the origin exactly. Of course there’s Puccini’s ‘La Bohème.’ That’s based on the French book ‘Scènes de la vie de bohème.’ Probably published mid-19th century. There was an oddly beautiful Finnish film, some years ago, based on the book. But where the use of ‘bohemian’ or ‘bohème’ in French came from to begin with I can only speculate.” He’s brought Lone Man a guitar and tells him, “You do know that this guitar was owned and played by Manuel el Sevillano. It was recorded on a wax cylinder in the 1920s, believe it or not. God only knows whatever happened to that. Been nice talking with you. As they say, ‘La vida no vale nada.’ Los Americanos!”

Isaach de Bankolé as Lone Man in "The Limits of Control"
Finally, Lone Man is met by Mexican (Gael García Bernal) who has brought Driver (Hiam Abbass) who will deliver Lone Man to the object of his quest – American (Bill Murray). Mexican tells him, “The old men in my village used to say, ‘Everything changes by the color of the glass you see it through.’ You think that’s true? Everything's imagined. Do you notice reflections? For me, sometimes the reflection is far more present than the thing being reflected. Are you interested in hallucinations, by any chance? Have you ever tried peyote? Do you know who the Huicholes are? They wear mirrors around their necks. And they play violins. Handmade violins. With only one string.”

Seven stations. At each rendezvous Lone Man performs a short t’ai chi ch’uan ritual. At each he will have two espressos only one of which he will drink. At each a guide will give him a matchbox – red exchanged for blue, blue for red – in which he will find a folded, coded message that, once read, he will roll into a pill and swallow before boarding the next train.

Isaach de Bankolé as Lone Man in "The Limits of Control"
With its centuries old vampires, “Only Lovers Left Alive” affords Jarmusch the opportunity for allusions galore. The names alone provide Biblical references – Adam (Tom Hiddleston) in Detroit and Eve (Tilda Swinton) in Tangier are the married lovers of the title. They are also lovers of culture, discerning collectors of fine things – vintage guitars, fine violins, first editions, vinyl recordings, cut crystal, a 1982 buttressed Jaguar XJ-S luxury grand touring car – who continue to see the importance of knowing Latin binomial nomenclature. Their homes are littered with portraits of lost friends – great writers and artists and thinkers.

Adam, using the alias “Dr. Faust,” frequents a Detroit blood bank overseen by a Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright). Eve’s old friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) purportedly faked his death in 1593 and now lives under the protection of a Tangier local (Slimane Dazi).

Not only do art, literary, musical and philosophical references abound in Jarmusch, references to science take on increasing importance: in the name-dropping of the cabbie’s imagined Genius Hotel in the Rome segment of “Night on Earth” (trysting in a room between Leonardo da Vinci and Einstein; meeting Dante Aligheri, Shakespeare, and Newton; introducing Beethoven to Charlie Parker), and in “Only Lovers Left Alive,” in Eve’s library* – a marvel of world literature with editions that could not otherwise be found outside the al-Qarawiyyin library, the Library of Congress or the Bibliothèque nationale de France – and Adam’s wall of friends** long lost through the centuries. Adam admires Pythagoras, Galileo, Copernicus and Newton, but his real hero is the Serbian inventor Nicola Tesla.

Whereas Jack has built a replica Tesla coil in “Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil” in “Coffee and Cigarettes,” Adam has realized Tesla’s dream of a wireless power transfer generator to electrify his Detroit house off the grid, and he’s built a Tesla flux capacitor to run his Jaguar without fossil fuel. Taken together Jarmusch's doubling and allusions add up to an interweaving, not only of multiple strands within a single film but of the entire oeuvre itself – even an entwining of the whole of artistic, philosophical and scientific inquiry.

Tom Hiddleston as Adam and Tilda Swinton as Eve in "Only Lovers Left Alive"
THE QUEST AND AMERICA
Pauline Kael called “Stranger Than Paradise” “a punk picaresque,” and indeed, Jarmusch's films involve rogues on the road – dreamers, losers, jailbirds on the lam, settlers, immigrants, tourists, hitmen, Lotharios, vampires, cabbies, busmen – all aliens, outsiders navigating against a vaguely defined world of consumer capitalism – ominously lurking offstage – of which we only see the detritus within his frame. Even with their vaudevillian interludes of physical comedy, there is a quiet about a Jarmusch film – spaces to be filled, rooms – yet without a sense of claustrophobia. And there’s always the road outside. 

Whatever the narrative structure, whatever the setting, the quest journey, with its stations along the way, is central to the Jarmusch project. In “Stranger Than Paradise,” Willie and Eddie and Eva have all come to look for America. In “Down by Law,” Jack and Zack and Bob are looking for freedom and with it America, too. Mitsuko and Jun have made a pilgrimage from Yokohama to Memphis in “Mystery Train” to pay homage to Elvis, Carl Perkins and Sun Records, the label founded by Sam Phillips in 1952 that went on to record the definitive soundtrack for a distinct American era.

In “Stranger Than Paradise,” Eva has come from Hungary presumably in search of a better life. She leaves Willie and Eddie a note in the seedy Florida motel room. “I hate America and all Americans,” it says, especially, she hates Willie and Eddie. The note says she’s gone to the airport to go back to Budapest, but at the airport, Eva changes her mind. Not knowing that, Willie has a sense of responsibility to bring her back.

Periodically, throughout John Lurie’s original soundtrack for “Stanger Than Paradise,” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You” emanates from Eva’s tape player. Like the lover in the song, America tempts and entices and doesn’t care if we don’t like what we find.

“Dead Man,” “Ghost Dog,” “Broken Flowers” and “The Limits of Control” are obvious quest stories. William Blake and Ghost Dog embark on spiritual quests, the final leg of which is death. William Blake with his guide Nobody; Ghost Dog with the “Hagakure” teachings; Don with his Sherlock, Winston; and Lone Man with his attendants at each station – Jarmusch's dramatis personae must undertake complicated journeys along which they must overcome obstacles, but, as Van Morrison sings in "Checkin' It Out," "There are guides and spirits all along the way/Who will befriend us." The goal of the quest is not the object or person it ostensibly seeks, but rather the transformation of the one undertaking it.

In “Broken Flowers,” Winston asks Don to make a list of the five women most likely to have authored the letter, then catches Don off guard by not only preparing an itinerary, but making all the necessary travel arrangements – “Booked reservations, rental cars. …. I even got maps. Everything you need.” Don is cemented in inertia, and suggests that if Winston is so gung ho, why doesn't he go instead. “I’ve merely prepared the strategy,” Winston explains. “Only you can solve the mystery.”

Jarmusch is master of the modern spiritual quest, an explorer of the multivariants of freedom. The true quest remains unconditional in its mystery and magnetism for he who would make the sacrifice to renounce quotidian responsibility to become that archetypal stranger in a strange land.


Bill Murray as Don Johnston in "Broken Flowers"
What is America? A place of TV dinners, football, depressing hotdog stands, cartoons, highways, cheap motels. Yet while there is also corporate malevolence, there are fundamentally decent guys like Eddie and Willie, and Bob...and Nobody and Ghost Dog and Don and Adam who do their damnedest to keep their appointments and watch out for each other. And there is Eva from Budapest who can roll with the flow and take care of herself and decide to stay after all.

In the segment titled “Renée” in "Coffee and Cigarettes," Renée French chastises an eager waiter for refilling her coffee: “I had the right color, right temperature, it was just right.” This could be the human conundrum – we can’t seem to get it just right.

“You on a road trip,” Don asks the young man he's spotted at the station when he gets back home. “Yeah. Something like that.” “You a gangster?” the young man asks. “No. I wish. No, I was, I was in computers. Computers and girls.” “I’m interested in philosophy,” the young man says. “Philosophy and girls. You have any, like, philosophical tips or anything for a guy on a kind of road trip?” “Well, the past is gone. I know that,” Don tells him. “The future isn’t here yet, whatever it’s going to be. So, all there is is – is this. The present. That’s it. Are you a Buddhist?” Don asks. “No. Are you?” “I’m not sure yet,” Don replies, and then apologizes. “I’m sorry. That’s the best I have to offer at the moment.”

Adam Driver as the poet Paterson in "Paterson"
...up next, "Paterson."


*The Books of Eve (partial list)
Thanks to Sofia da Costa of "Film Flare: Musings on Film & Literature"

“Los Pequeños Poemas” by Ramón De Campoamor, 1871
“Endgame” by Samuel Beckett, 1957
“Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace, 1996
“Don Quixote” by Miguel De Cervantes, 1605
“The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” by Yukio Mishima, 1956
"Madame Bovary" by Gustave Flaubert
“The Bastard of Istanbul” by Elik Shafak, 2006
“Basquiat,” edited by Sam Keller and Dieter Buchhart, 1996
“Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf, 1925
“The Ambassadors” by Henry James, 1903
“Les Anglais au Pole Nord” by Jules Verne, 1864
“L'Orlando Furioso” by Ludovico Ariosto, 1516
“La Creazione di Adamo e di Eva” in “Porta Del Paradiso, XV” by Lorenzo Ghibeti 
"The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti's Renaissance Masterpiece," edited by Gary M. Radke, Andrew Butterfield and Margaret Haines, 2007
“Zwischen zwei Revolutionen: Der Geist der Schinkelzeit (1789- 1848)” by Ernst Heilborn, 1927
“The Metamorphosis” by Frank Kafka, 1916

**Adam's Wall of Friends and Heroes
Thanks to the blog site "Dracula: History and Myth"

Joe Strummer
Johann Sebastian Bach
Claire Denis
Mary Wollstonecraft
Aki Kaurismäki
Bo Diddley
Franz Schubert
Chrissie Hynde
Franz Kafka
Edgar Allen Poe
Bruce Lee
RZA (appeared in "Coffee and Cigarettes" and "Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai")
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (appeared in "Mystery Train")
Gustav Mahler
Henry Purcell
Tom Waits (music for "Night on Earth," appeared in Down by Law" and "Coffee and Cigarettes" and played Renfield in Francis Ford Copalla's "Bram Stoker’s Dracula")
Charles Baudelaire
Luis Buñuel
William S. Burroughs
Sitting Bull
Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning
Robert Johnson
Buster Keaton
Nikola Tesla
Rumi
William Blake (see "Dead Man")
Arthur Rimbaud
Hedy Lamarr
Patti Smith
Charley Patton
Emily Dickinson
Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright played Basquiat in the biopic)
Robby Müller (Jim Jarmusch’s cinematographer for "Down by Law," "Mystery Train," "Dead Man," "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," and the “Twins” segment of "Coffee and Cigarettes")
John Coltrane
Mark Twain
Isaac Newton
Marcel Duchamp
Fritz Lang
Naomi Klein
Frank Zappa
Iggy Pop (appears "Dead Man" and "Coffee and Cigarettes" and is the subject of Jarmusch's upcoming documentary about Iggy and the Stooges)
Thelonious Monk
Harpo Marx
Susan Sontag
Black Elk
Rodney Dangerfield
Christopher Marlowe
Geronimo
Samuel Beckett
Jane Austen
John Keats
Oscar Wilde
Jimi Hendrix
Nicholas Ray
Hank Williams
Billie Holiday
Neil Young (music for "Dead Man" and Jarmusch did concert film: Neil Young and Crazy Horse: Year of the Horse)